The United Nations doesn’t have a special agency to prepare for the disaster that could occur if a deadly strain of influenza that is currently killing hundreds of millions poultry and wild birds were to start killing millions of humans, but the world doesn’t need such an organisation, experts say.
“This is a problem that’s just too complex for any one organisation to handle,“ John Underwood, a senior adviser for the World Bank, told IRIN in Bamako during a three-day conference on avian flu attended by representatives from more than a hundred governments and international organisations.
On Friday donors announced pledges worth US $475 million for 2007 to prepare for bird flu, adding to some $2 billion pledged since the first outbreak in Asia in 2003. Since then avian flu has been reported in dozens of countries in Asia, Europe and Africa, killing hundreds of millions of birds and poultry while authorities have culled at least 240 million more to prevent the disease from spreading.
Only 258 people are known to have contracted the virus so far but half of them died, thus if the disease were to spread widely amongst humans experts predict a humanitarian catastrophe.
Underwoood, who led the World Bank team that set up a system to finance and monitor national and international efforts to cope with a possible global pandemic, said an array of international organisations are involved as well as many government ministries. Technical expertise is required in animal disease, human disease, food security and disaster management.
Other experts need to prepare for the economic and social effects of a pandemic. The potential fallout was seen when an outbreak occurred in Egypt and the poultry industry collapsed. Communications experts are also preparing to inform and mobilise the public for when outbreaks occur.
The coordinator of all of these activities is David Nabarro, who heads a unit in the UN called the System Influenza Coordination, know by the acronym UNSIC. It has laid out the roles and responsibilities of various UN and partner organisations in an action plan published in November that donors used to decide how they would allocate funds.
The key technical organisations are the World Health Organisation (WHO) the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).
Both the FAO and OIE are charged with strengthening veterinary services in developing countries, boosting their abilities to monitor the virus and improving crisis management. WHO’s responsibilities include assisting countries in setting up health systems that can respond to epidemics and pandemics.
As outbreaks could cause malnutrition in some areas, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) is working to identify and address possible food security needs. UNICEF has the job of working with governments, and other UN organisations to develop communication strategies and behavioural change to prevent bird-to-bird, bird-to-human and human-to-human transmission.
Other organisations also have small but still important roles. For example, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) is preparing contingency plans if flights need to be stopped in areas where there is an outbreak to prevent or at least minimise its spread.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) is charged with providing support to workers in the poultry industry, which has already suffered losses of up to US $10 billion from bird flu outbreaks around the world.
The UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) are helping to create Pandemic Influenza Contingency Support Teams around the world, which provide technical support to governments so that they are ready to respond to avian and human influenza and have effective disaster management plans.
Financing the activities of a dozen different organisations and some hundred governments is a complicated matter, Underwood said, particularly as money must sometimes be dispersed very quickly.
Also priorities change quickly, he said. “In January when donors met in Beijing we agreed that Africa was a low priority, but then in February outbreaks started in Nigeria, Egypt and several other African countries and we had to suddenly re-estimate and reallocate funds.”
The World Bank has an emergency trust fund that has some US $10 million grant money available for outbreaks that occur anywhere in the world.
It also has about US $200 million in loan money available, some of which was released in March to help Nigeria cope with its outbreak. Underwood said that a loan can be dispersed quicker than a grant but he didn’t think loans were fair.
“Developing countries shouldn’t have to become indebted in order to help solve a problem that could potentially affect the whole world,” he said.
How money is dispersed to various organisations is even more complicated.
“That’s what you get with this interagency approach,” he said. “Some agencies and countries can get too much finding while others get too little.”
Also monitoring the money is more difficult when it goes to many institutions than when it goes to one big one, he said. “But the world doesn’t need yet another new international organisation,” he said. “It needs existing organisations to adapt to new situations.”
UNSIC coordinator David Nabarro said at the conference that flexibility is the key to managing a potential crisis, which could start anywhere in the world and may or may not be catastrophic to humans. “We are dealing with an uncertain threat but one we know we must prepare for,” he said.